Can tomatoes be invented? Patents threaten access to seeds

Can tomatoes be invented? Patents threaten access to seeds
Can tomatoes be invented? Patents threaten access to seeds

European law says that only genetic modification can be considered a patentable invention in plant breeding. However, there are already 200 patents on traditional breeding, as large seed companies exploit loopholes in the patent law.

Breeders need access to genetic material in order to adapt plants to new pests and diseases or to changing climatic conditions. The current legal uncertainty of the European patent system seriously hampers the work of breeders. Many refrain from working on a specific trait, because they cannot risk infringing a patent held by a large company.

For example, several companies such as BASF, Bayer or Rijk Zwann have filed more than a dozen patents on resistance against tomato brown rugosa virus (TOBRFV), also known as Jordan virus, even though they only used traditional breeding which, under European patent law, cannot be patented. This means that other breeders will be discouraged by the immense legal uncertainty.

Companies claim various genomic regions. All tomato plants that inherit genetic variations generated through any type of plant breeding are claimed as inventions, even if they occur naturally and are found in wild tomato species. Conventional breeders seeking to produce virus-resistant tomato varieties will, in many cases, not know the exact genotype of their plants. Therefore, to avoid patent infringement, they would have to sift through a dozen patent applications and search for all the genetic variants described in the patent. In addition, they would have to sign a dozen licensing agreements. With such impediments, many breeders will simply conclude that they cannot grow those particular tomatoes without incurring the expense of expensive patent attorneys or extensive laboratory analysis. This effectively blocks access to the biological material needed in traditional breeding to generate the desired virus resistance. As a result, legal uncertainty and the threat of costly legal battles are likely to prevent breeders from developing urgently needed tomato varieties.

Patents such as those granted on tomatoes pose a serious threat to diversity in plant cultivationThis would have a devastating effect on food safety in Europe. Political action by the 39 Member States of the European Patent Office and the EU is needed to ensure that European patent law is correctly interpreted.

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Bio Eco Current July 2024

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